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Katy Kassian checks out the local flavor at The Lodge Coffee Shop in Citrus Heights, Calif. (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

Cafes serve up more than food

We love seeking out little cafes when we travel. You know the kind — where locals meet for breakfast, grab a meal with family or hang out with the coffee crew. It's where we get more than a meal — we get a sense of the place we're visiting and the people who live there.

We're always surprised when people say they want to "see new places and try new things," but still insist on stopping at the first major chain restaurant they see near an exit. By barely leaving the highway, they miss opportunities to get a feel for the community and maybe to find a few of its hidden treasures before getting back on the road.

That's why we stop at the places where locals gather. Where, by simply smiling at someone or saying "hello," we can start a conversation that often spreads to include everyone in the room.

In just a few minutes, we find out what's going on in and around town, learn snippets of local history, and get directions to more than the usual sights — like some of those little gems the locals take for granted.

We can find out who's who, how the crops are and hear about the guy who restored a muscle car or tractor, all in a good-natured stream of back-and-forth chatter between patrons and employees alike. We get a sense of place.

We also get that not everyone is willing to start talking to people they don't know. And that's OK. But think about it — you're already talking with the waitress or gas station clerk or whoever anyway. Why not get the scoop on fun stuff to do while you're at it?

All it takes is a quick question: "What's going on around here today?"

"Not sure," they might say, turning to a guy nearby. "Hey, Bob! These folks are looking for something to do — any suggestions?"

BOOM! Conversation started.

It's the same when we move into a new community — one of the first things we do is look for a place to eat. Somewhere we feel comfortable and the food is good. Somewhere we're assured of a welcome and camaraderie. A place we can meet our neighbors and become a part of the "family." Our own personal "Cheers," even if everybody doesn't know our names. Yet.

And we're not alone — there are plenty of folks just like us. Are you ready?

When folks you don't know walk through the door, remember the value of strangers — a value that may go beyond the price of their meal or their fuel. While some are vacationers, others are looking to relocate or may be traveling through on business. And, unless they say so, you don't know who's just passing through, and who might be considering moving in and boosting the local economy.

No matter the reason, they chose to stop and meet you. Your town. Your corner. Your place. They, too, want to feel that sense of community.

It's a universal feeling. It's found in small cafes, major chains, corner bistros and the coffee groups at gas station convenience stores. In cities large and small, and everything in between.

We — employees and locals alike — need to be welcoming and friendly. After all, every last one of us represents our local cafes, businesses and the places we live. Who cares if the unsuspecting visitor sat in your regular spot? Return the smile with one of your own, and say "Hey, how's it going?"

Don't be the reason they leave forever. Be the reason they come back to visit or maybe even to stay.